McGrath fends off Booker to win Kentucky Senate primary

Former Marine combat pilot Amy McGrath won the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky on Tuesday, overcoming an unexpectedly fierce challenge from progressive state Rep. Charles Booker.

McGrath was declared the winner after initial results from the June 23 primary were too close to call, hinging the final outcome on mailed-in ballots that have flooded in amid the coronavirus pandemic. She was leading Booker by 45 percent to 43 percent as of midday Tuesday.

McGrath’s victory came a week after the primary due to the high volume of absentee ballots that ticked in after the June 23 election. Some counties even waited until after they had counted outstanding mail-in ballots to report any results at all.

As vote counts were updated throughout the week, the results fluctuated wildly, at times showing Booker in the lead. He ultimately won the state’s urban centers in Louisville and Lexington by large margins, but McGrath made up ground in Kentucky’s more rural areas. Those votes helped carry her across the finish line Tuesday.

McGrath, who launched her Senate campaign nearly a year ago, has long been the prohibitive front-runner in the race to face off against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in November.

The high profile she gained from her unsuccessful 2018 House race against Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) and her early backing from Democratic Senate leaders in Washington helped give her an insurmountable cash advantage in the race and quickly propelled her to the top of the pack.

Over nearly a year on the campaign trail, McGrath raised a staggering $41.1 million. Her latest federal filings showed her with more than $19 million in the bank heading into the June 23 primary.

Booker, on the other hand, raised a small fraction of McGrath’s haul. Since announcing his campaign in January, he pulled in less than $800,000, according to his federal filings. 

But the dynamics of the race shifted rapidly in recent weeks, as protests over racial injustice and police brutality overtook cities across the country. Booker emerged as an early and powerful voice in those protests, raising his profile in the final weeks before the June 23 primary. 

That heightened profile brought with it a new wave of fundraising. Over a two-week period this month, Booker’s campaign raked in $1.5 million. He also began airing the first television ads of his campaign, including one hitting McGrath over her absence from the recent protests in Louisville. 

Booker also managed to rack up a series of high-profile endorsements in recent weeks, including from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, three of the biggest names in the progressive movement. 

But one of his most influential endorsements came from Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s former secretary of state and one of its most prominent Democrats. Grimes unsuccessfully challenged McConnell for his seat in 2014. 

McGrath also stumbled at several points throughout her campaign, including early on when she suggested in an interview that she would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Democrats vehemently opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination after decades-old allegations of sexual assault emerged. McGrath quickly walked back her remarks amid biting criticism.

But she also headed into the Tuesday primary with several advantages. McGrath had far more cash on hand than any of her opponents, and she likely benefited from early votes that were cast before Booker’s recent surge in the race.

Booker’s loss is a disappointment for progressives, who had hoped that his last-minute burst of momentum would give them a much-needed primary win.

Still, the fact that the race was decided by such a narrow margin provides a glint of hope to the left flank of the Democratic Party. McGrath had started campaigning six months earlier than Booker and was seen from the get go as the favorite to take on McConnell. Her near loss is likely to be seen by progressives as a sign that other well-funded, establishment-backed candidates may be vulnerable to a challenge from the left.

Unseating McConnell in November will almost certainly be an uphill battle for Democrats. The state hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992, and it has trended further to the right in recent years. And as the top Republican in the Senate, McConnell has an unrivaled political platform in the state.

The Senate majority leader is also likely to benefit from having President Trump at the top of the ballot in November. Trump carried Kentucky by 30 points in 2016 and his support remains strong there. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, currently rates the Kentucky Senate race as “likely Republican.”

Updated: 1:06 p.m.

Tags 2020 elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Amy McGrath Andy Barr Bernie Sanders Brett Kavanaugh Charles Booker Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Kentucky Senate primary Kentucky Senate Race Mitch McConnell

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